The city of Medan in North Sumatra sees a large number of tourists as it is the entry and exit point for stunning neighboring attractions like Lake Toba and Bukit Lawang. Unfortunately however, many people stay overnight in Medan and leave as quickly as possible, thinking that this is just another big city in Indonesia. They couldn’t be more wrong however, and Medan sees a lot of domestic tourists who realize its charms and who also recognize that it has some of the best food in Indonesia.
People flock here for the food scene, and whatever your tastes you won’t go hungry in the city. Most of Medan’s top attractions are focused around food and you can sign up for a food tour, or simply go it lone and explore the sights, smells, and tastes of the city by yourself. In addition to the restaurants, stalls, and food courts, Medan is known for its diversity, and this is reflected in the range of attractions that you can experience here including a strong Tamil influence, a large Chinese community, and the indigenous Batak people who also call Medan home.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Medan:
1. Tour Tjong A Fie Mansion
Anyone who has been to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang in Malaysia may find Tjong A Fie Mansion familiar, and Tjong A Fie was actually a relative of Cheong Fatt Tze hence the similarities between the two buildings.
The mansion is one of the top attractions in Medan and is a great place to see how people would have lived in this city in the 1900s.
You can take a guided tour around the mansion which will take around an hour and hear all about the history here with one of the attentive guides.
As you walk around make sure to check out all the ornate decorations and the pretty garden for which the mansion is famous.
2. Have a bowl of soup at Soto Kesawan
Soto Kesawan is one of the reasons why people flock to Medan for its food and is one of the most famous restaurants in the city.
It is actually not really a restaurant but more a small shop with a few tables, but it serves up one of Medan’s most well known dishes called Soto Medan.
In essence this is a soup which is thickened with coconut milk and has shredded chicken or prawns added to it as well as crunchy bean sprouts and potato cakes.
The eatery closes around 4 pm, so make sure you get here early if you want to score your own bowl of this delicious and soothing soup.
It is close to Tjong A Fie Mansion so it’s a good idea to visit both of these attractions at the same time.
3. Admire Mesjid Raya Al Mashun
Mesjid Raya Al Mashun, or simply Mesjid Raya as it is often referred to, is Medan’s main mosque and is known for being one of its prettiest.
The mosque was built using imported building materials such as Italian marble and you can take a tour and check out all the exquisite details here.
Some things to look out for include the pretty stained glass touches as well as the emerald green tiles, and the mosque is topped with dark elegant domes.
Non-Muslims are welcome to tour the mosque outside of prayer hours, but make sure to dress respectfully.
4. Have lunch at Tip Top Restaurant
Conveniently located across the street from Tjong A Fie Mansion, Tip Top Restaurant is something of an institution in Medan and first opened its doors in 1934. Little has changed since that time and this is an example of the pretty colonial style architecture that is found all over Medan.
The restaurant serves a range of Indonesian and international food, and also has an in-house ice cream parlor as well as a bakery that turns out delicious cakes.
The real reason to come here though is to enjoy the period setting and get a taste of how Medan would have looked years ago.
5. Dress up at Istana Maimun
Istana Maimun is the name of the royal palace in Medan which belonged to the Sultanate of Deli.
Nowadays parts of the palace are open to the public and have been turned into a museum.
These include the throne room and there are a few displays that explain the history of the royal family and some collections of ancient clothing and other objects of interest.
One of the big draws here is that for a small fee you can dress up in period garb and take pictures in the throne room, and you can also walk around the lush grounds that encircle the palace.
6. Have dinner at Merdeka Walk
Medan is famous for its food but if you are not sure what you want to eat then head to Merdeka Walk.
This is basically a kind of promenade which is lined with different restaurants and stalls selling all different kinds of food in the center of the city.
This means it is perfect if you are traveling with a large group as everyone can choose something different to eat and it offers you a snapshot of Medan’s varied food scene.
Just some of the choices here include noodle dishes, soups, rice, curries, fresh juices, and toothsome desserts.
7. Visit the Museum of North Sumatra
The Museum of North Sumatra is the best museum in the city and a must-visit if you want to know more about the history and culture of the province.
At the museum you will find galleries that tell the story of the different periods of North Sumatran history and take you through the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim eras as well as the Dutch colonial period.
There are also collections dedicated to ancient weaponry, textiles, farming equipments, and sculptures, and you will also find some amazing wooden coffins carved in the shapes of dragons.
All in all, this is a treasure trove of history and a great introduction to Medan.
8. Enjoy a feast at Garuda Restaurant
If you want to try some quintessential Medan style food then you need to go to Garuda Restaurant.
This is actually a chain so there are a few dotted all over the city and the main reason to come here is to enjoy the Nasi Padang.
Literally meaning ‘Padang Rice’, the staff will bring you a range of around 20 small dishes filled with different curries, fish, vegetables, and sauces as well as a plate of rice.
You pay for the food you eat, so you don’t need to sample every dish and some of the highlights include the spicy beef curry called rendang, the potato cakes, and the eggplant covered in chili sauce.
Whatever you choose however, this is one of the best food experiences that you can have in Medan.
9. Walk around Kampung Keling
Kampung Keling is the traditionally Tamil part of Medan and you could be forgiven for thinking that you were actually in India.
The area is covered in shops selling colorful saris and Indian jewelry and there are also a wealth of Indian restaurants here that serve traditional Indian dishes.
It is also the spot of the Sri Mariamman Temple which was built in 1884 and is a riot of color.
Make sure to check out the ornate carvings that make up the temple roof, as there is nothing else like this in Medan.
10. Visit Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni
Also known as Our Lady of Good Health Church, Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni opened in 2005 and is something of an optical illusion.
Dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health, this is a Catholic church but it is modeled on an Indian temple and you can enjoy the ornate furnishings here and the elegant and colorful effigies on show.
It is also a powerful symbol of Medan’s diversity.
11. Have dinner at Cahaya Baru
Located in Kampung Keling, Cahaya Baru is one of the most famous restaurants in the city.
This simple eatery is dedicated to serving up delicious and cheap Indian food and this is the place to come if you want to try authentic curries and dhal.
If you want to get a taste of everything you can order the tali which comes on a metal tray that is separated into compartments and has a range of curries, rice, and vegetable dishes.
Unlike many restaurants in Medan you can also buy beer here and enjoy a cold one with your meal, or you can opt for the fresh juices or lassi.
12. Visit Medan Post Office
Medan Post Office sits in the center of the city and is one of the most recognizable buildings in the area.
The post office was built in 1911 during the Dutch colonial period and was designed by a Dutch architect who built it in the traditional colonial style.
The post office has a large done on the top and signature half circle windows and is one of the best examples of colonial architecture in Medan.
13. Visit Vihara Maha Maitreya
Vihara Maha Maitreya is one of the largest Buddhist temples in Indonesia and a pretty spot to visit if you want to tour around all of Medan’s key religious attractions.
There is a large Buddhist community in Medan, and this is an important place of worship although visitors are also welcome to tour the building.
Make sure to look out for the pretty pools here and there is also a canteen here that sells delicious vegetarian food so try to time your visit to coincide with lunchtime.
14. Explore Rahmat Gallery
Rahmat Gallery is one of the quirkiest attractions in Medan and is a great choice if you want to do something a little unusual.
The gallery is notable as it is filled with preserved animals, so anyone with an interest in taxidermy definitely shouldn’t give it a miss.
The gallery is also a great way to check out a range of different species that are indigenous to Indonesia.
15. Enjoy the nightlife at Cafe Raya
Cafe Raya is an institution in Medan and is known as the best place to stop off for a few beers.
Not all cafes in Medan serve alcohol, so this makes Cafe Raya a favorite with the expatriate community and with anyone looking for a quiet corner away from the bustle of the city.
Located in the center of town on Jalan SM Raja, Cafe Raya also serves a range of international dishes and some simple Indonesian noodles and fried rice, and as many of the city’s hotels and guesthouses are located along the same road, this is a convenient place to come in the evening and relax before you turn in for the night.